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September 18, 2017

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In Kubuqi: turning vast desert into a forest

ALL was not silent in the heart of the Kubuqi Desert in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The whistling of the wind was drowned out by the roar of machines.

With an auger in hand, one worker drilled a deep hole in the sand, then another put a seedling in it and covered it with sand. It took less than 20 seconds to plant a tree.

“This method doesn’t affect the soil structure and will keep moisture in the sand,” said Han Meifei, an engineer with the Elion Resources Group, best known for its successful efforts in greening the Kubuqi. “The survival rate of the seedlings can reach as high as 65 percent in dry areas.”

In areas with enough groundwater, hydraulic planting methods are more efficient, he said.

Taking out a slim tube linked to a water hose, he turned on the tap and jetted water into the sand. Within 10 seconds, a meter-deep hole was dug and a seedling planted.

“The survival rate is above 90 percent, compared with a 10 percent rate when using the traditional shovel-digging method,” he told a group of delegates to the recent 13th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 13) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in Ordos City on the edge of the Kubuqi Desert.

The meeting, which ended last Saturday, brought together more than 1,400 delegates from 196 countries and regions as well as 20 international organizations. They worked on drawing a roadmap to end desert expansion worldwide by 2030.

The Kubuqi model

Kubuqi is the seventh-largest desert in China, covering 18,000 square kilometers. Close to Beijing, it was once a major source of sandstorms that hit the capital.

The constant expansion of the desert forced many people to migrate. Those who remain mostly live in poverty.

To rein in the desert, the Ordos government implemented a plan — to cut the desert into half by building a 100-kilometer highway through the middle of the desert, encircling the desert with trees and grass and then tackling the sand patch by patch.

Elion took the lead in the battle. The company invested heavily, invented various sand-treatment methods and encouraged local farmers and herdsmen to participate.

Elion has provided farmers drought-resistant licorice seedlings, and it will buy back the grown plants at market price. Licorice, an important traditional Chinese medicinal herb, can fix the drifting sand and improve the soil.

After three years, the soil will be good enough to grow grain and vegetables.

In Kubuqi, Elion has also built China’s largest solar farm in a desert. Its 650,000 fixed and sun-tracking panels channel 500 million kilowatt hours of electricity into the national grid each year.

“The panels shield wind and sand and reduce evaporation so grass and other plants can grow well under them,” said He Pengfei, a senior executive of Elion, noting the solar project has created more than 1,000 jobs for local people.

These efforts not only contributed to the greening of more than 6,000 square kilometers of Kubuqi, but also lifted 102,000 people out of poverty.

The afforestation efforts have also improved the climate in the desert. Rainfall in Kubuqi was less than 100 millimeters in 1988, and the figure soared to 456mm in 2016, while the number of sandstorms fell from 50 in 1988 to only one in 2016.

“Transforming a desert into a forest is amazing. I’m very proud to be here to see Kubuqi forest,” said Fatoumata Cherif, a delegate from Guinea, after touring some of the desert.

“In Kubuqi, they have provided jobs in solar energy, eco-tourism and planting medicinal herbs. That’s exactly what we need to do, to green the desert and get people out of poverty,” said Erik Solheim, executive director of the UN Environment Program (UNEP) who was in Ordos to attend COP 13.

Patrick Worms, senior science policy advisor at the UN World Agroforestry Center, said he was impressed by how people managed to restore degraded land on “an extremely large scale” while solving the governance issue.

The core of success at Kubuqi is its sustainable business model, and the establishment of a system that incorporates policy instruments, private sector investment and active participation by locals, according to a policy report from the UNEP.

Shrinking deserts

More than 40 percent of China’s land is degraded to some extent. To combat desertification, China has invested enormous efforts in recent decades, including the adoption of the world’s first law on tackling desertification, the return of farmland to grass and the ban of natural forest logging.

Efforts have been stepped up over the past five years. China has put ecological construction equal footing with economic, political, cultural and social construction in its overall plan to build socialism with Chinese characteristics.

China is ahead of its peers. The area of desertified land in the country is dropping an annual average of more than 2,400 square kilometers, compared with an annual average expansion of over 10,000 square kilometers at the end of last century, making China the first country in the world to achieve desert shrinkage.

“China plans to reforest 50 percent of the desertified land that can be treated by 2020, and the rest by 2050,” said Liu Dongsheng, deputy head of the State Forestry Administration.

These efforts have won praise from UN officials as well as delegates at COP 13.

China has provided experience, technology and a model for the global fight against desertification, making remarkable contributions to reach the global goal of zero growth in degraded land, Monique Barbut, executive secretary of UNCCD, told delegates to COP 13.

“China sees the desert not as a problem, but as an opportunity, an opportunity for jobs and fighting poverty via greening the desert,” said Solheim.

Cooperation needed

Desertification is one of the most pressing issues facing mankind. Up to two billion hectares of land are degraded worldwide. On average, 12 million hectares are lost every year and 169 countries are affected by land degradation, desertification and drought, according to the UNCCD.

With the theme of “Combating Desertification for Human Well-being,” the main mission of COP 13 is to seek solutions for the UN sustainable development goal of “achieving a land degradation neutral world by 2030” and to develop a new UNCCD strategy framework for 2018-2030.

President Xi Jinping recently stressed global cooperation to combat desertification in a congratulatory letter to the high-level meeting of COP 13.

China will unswervingly fulfill its obligations under the UNCCD, and continue to push forward communication and cooperation with all member parties and international organizations to work for the targets set during the conference and create a better world, Xi said.

Solheim said China is one of the most successful countries worldwide in greening the desert and has lessons to share with the world on curbing desertification.

During the meeting, countries along the Belt and Road launched a cooperation framework to fight desertification.

The framework will help members cooperate on financing, sharing information, training, and learning from each other through example projects. Solheim said he expected the Belt and Road Initiative would be used for investment and technology transfer in fighting desertification.

Iran, for example, has suffered greatly from sandstorms. Solheim said Iran can learn from China’s technology and knowledge in curbing desertification, and countries in Africa and Central Asia facing similar problems can do the same.


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